In 2016, we learned that when the going gets tough, the writers sod off to watch Netflix. They must have done, as political speech and analysis has been almost exclusively the work of the weak. In a year where we face the rise of racist populism, environmental devastation, an unprecedented refugee crisis and the collapse of states and markets, communicators offered us a thin and unconvincing greeting card gruel.
The isolationist right spoke of a fuzzy homogenous past. The liberal left spoke of an ill-defined diverse future. It’s either “tolerance is bad!” or “hate for everyone but the intolerant is bad!” and any approach tougher than these is curiously deemed indigestible. The best can do nothing but binge-view disaster, while the worst serve up a diet of low-nutrient speech.
There have been so many communications this year that merit dishonourable mention. But as it’s the season to single out those who have excelled in the category of counter-productive rhetoric, let’s do this. In no particular order, before we give up on the year and simply watch House of Cards again, these are the top five messengers most off-message:
5. Peter Dutton
P-Dutt deserves props for his ability to form the words “political correctness gone mad” with an apparently straight face. This accusation of misleading newspeak, from the guy who regularly describes the torture camps he oversees as holiday resorts. I don’t know how he does it.
But, during his recent turn on fuckwit specialist radio service 2GB, he quickly reversed his good branding.
When responding enthusiastically to a talkback caller enraged about the disappearance of Christmas carols at a single primary school, Dutton proved that he was either a very poor performer or a very sincere dufus when he said, “Have a great Christmas and enjoy the birth of our Lord!”
Passionate religiosity is not now nor has it ever been a broadly acceptable part of Australian public speech. Personally, I’m glad when the Bernardis, Duttons and Abetzes have these liturgical moments as we can be confident that large numbers of us, including actually religious Australians, are embarrassed. Faith has long been a private matter here, and even the Islamophobic “political correctness gone mad” crowd have no wish to counter their fear of one perceived menace with another.
4. Owen Smith
Jeremy Corbyn may have become “unelectable” thanks to the relentless efforts of centrist journalists to make it so, but, jeez, did you get a look at the other half of the Labour contest, Owen Smith?
The man said a lot of shit, so it’s very hard to sift. But let’s go with that time he responded on Twitter to a claim that he seemed very “normal” with, “I am normal. I grew up in a normal household. I’ve got a wife and three children.” This (a) gainsaid his pro-diversity, post-Brexit message (b) undid all the solid work his snivelling supporters had done to falsely depict Corbyn as a sexist anti-Semite and (c) put him in a tricky position with Angela Eagle, a gay former leadership contestant who had recently withdrawn giving him her warmest endorsement.
You’d think a guy who once had a gig creating positive spin for a pharmaceutical company might know his way ‘round a campaign a little better. Perhaps he never got out of the habit of putting warnings on the product label.
3. Liberal media against Donald Trump
There can be no justification made for the dung that dropped from this bowel of a man. But nor can there be for the decision of mainstream, pro-Clinton media to sort through it obsessively. Why did Americans with Mexican heritage need to hear so often that someone hated them so utterly? How did sexual assault survivors benefit from the memo that there are those aggressors who feel open entitlement to their flesh? Do Muslim citizens not feel the pain of isolation frequently enough that they must be reminded of it by Slate, Salon, Vox, MSNBC and the New York Times?
For a sector purportedly concerned for the safety of the socially marginalised, these liberal outlets certainly did their best to inspire fear and real-life division. They did almost nothing to inspire an interest in the policies of any presidential candidate.
Amy Goodman, the well-regarded co-host of Democracy Now, has calculated that there were more network TV minutes given over during the primaries to footage of an empty podium in anticipation of Trump than there were those afforded to Bernie Sanders’ speeches.
CBS CEO Leslie Moonves said it more honestly than any of the falsely moralising twits at Vox or the Washington Post. An election that featured such a vulgar nominee, “may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS”.
2. Feminist pundits for Hillary Clinton
Gloria Steinem got in stupid and early this year with her claim that young women were supporting Bernie Sanders in such large numbers simply to meet boys. At around the same time, secretary Madeleine Albright damned all those women who dared not vote for Clinton. She later apologised for the snafu, explaining that her frequently restated comment “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” had long been well-received on a Starbucks take-out.
As it turned out, pro-Clinton feminists continued to deliver comment inspired by the literary form found on disposable cups. One of the best moments of caffeinated idiocy comes from loyal Clinton barista Amanda Murcotte who actually wrote the phrase “misogyny apocalypse” to describe the defeat. So the vote for the candidate who neglected to mention jobs throughout her campaign could never be motivated by the economy, stupid, but only, as local writer Van Badham had it, by “testosterone”.
Even leaving aside Badham’s fantasy that one can be both proudly Marxist and share Clinton’s faith in the healing power of Wall Street, such feminist messaging is understood, and not without reason, as anti-feminist. The injunction here is clear: women, such sentimental creatures, may only vote for a person. Leave the interest in policy to those with the objective power of testosterone.
1. Hillary Clinton and friends for Hillary Clinton
Even if you have a high opinion of the candidate, you may have acquired a very low one of her campaign. Clinton’s claim that much of the nation was a “basket of deplorables” consigned her to political waste. But the damage done to the party by the party will not be reversed for some years. They openly abandoned the faithful.
Democrat Chuck Schumer made it clear that his party had no real interest in preserving the traditional Democratic vote when he said, in public, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” In other words, the blue-collar deplorables can go fuck themselves. This may be how the party elite feels. It’s not a good idea to make such loathing public.
All political strategists must read the Podesta trove. It’s a playbook on how not to win an election. But, the rest of us don’t need WikiLeaks to remind us how misguided the campaign was, and how off-track the party remains. You’d think Schumer would be punished for his delusion. Instead, he’s Minority Senate Leader.
There is a widely held view in the communications industry that the punters are stupid, that their feeble minds can withstand only the crudest, most meaningless messages. If this terrible year has delivered no other hope, it is the falseness of that assumption.